Looking Back: Top 5 Camas-Washougal stories of 2020

Top news included Camas High School principal’s downfall after viral Kobe Bryant post and the unsolved murder of a Washougal grandmother

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Clockwise from upper left: Black Lives Matter supporters counterprotest at a

The COVID-19 pandemic changed all of our lives in 2020 and dominated local, national and international news, but what other news caught the attention of our Camas-Washougal readers? As we enter the new year, the Post-Record looks back on the Top 5 local stories from 2020:

No. 5: CWEDA head, former Camas mayor charged with stealing public funds

A prominent Camas political figure found himself in the middle of a police investigation in 2020 concerning the alleged theft of public funds.

In mid-April, the Post-Record was the first to report that Camas police had concluded a months-long investigation of Paul Dennis, a former Camas mayor and the most recent director of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA).

The police investigation concluded that Dennis, 51, of Camas, who ran CWEDA from 2011 to 2019, had stolen nearly $15,000 from the association over a seven-year period.

Nearly one month later, a state auditor report backed the Camas police theft allegations against Dennis and went even further — alleging Dennis used more than $19,000 in public funds for personal expenses, including the purchase of a new home climate-control system; “wrote checks for $850,000 during the audit period (June 7, 2011 through May 31, 2019) to his (own private) company for professional services, without a contract in place;” worked an average of four hours a day on CWEDA activities while receiving a salary of between $9,700 and $11,000 a month; and approved more than $1.2 million in public CWEDA expenditures over an eight-year period with little oversight from the CWEDA board of directors.

Charged with first-degree theft, Dennis entered a not-guilty plea in Clark County Superior Court in August and was set to have a trial beginning in November 2020.

No. 4: The unsolved murder of Sandra Ladd

In a year filled with sad news, the unsolved murder of Sandra Ladd, a longtime Washougal School District employee and grandmother of six, stood out.

Ladd, 71, was found stabbed to death in her Washougal home, in the 1900 block of 41st Street, on June 14.

Washougal police partnered with Crime Stoppers of Oregon in October to offer a reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to the arrest of Ladd’s killer. Police continue to say the investigation is “active and ongoing.”

A 1967 Washougal High School graduate, Ladd worked as an administrative assistant and receptionist for the Washougal School District from 1987 until 2015. She worked at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School and helped with the school district’s special services and summer meal programs. An active member of her labor union, she also worked with Washington’s Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee to help train other classified school employees throughout the state.

Ladd is survived by her four children — Mikaela Sasse of Vancouver, Jaymes Ladd of Yacolt, Ryan Ladd of Washougal and Trevor Paul Ladd of Washougal — and six grandchildren.

Anyone with information about Ladd’s murder should contact Crime Stoppers of Oregon at 503-823-HELP (4357), or download the P3 Tips app to submit a secure and anonymous tip.

No. 3: Black Lives Matter and calls for social justice

The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father of two who died in police custody on May 25, 2020, after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, prompted massive protests against systemic racism, sparked a renewed interest in the Black Lives matter movement and led to calls for police reform.

Camas-Washougal was not immune from these worldwide cries for social justice.

Organized by Camas High School students, the first local rallies drew dozens of Camas community members to downtown Camas during the first week of June 2020 to protest police violence against people of color and support the international Black Lives Matter human rights movement.

On June 6, 2020, Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell posted a video discussing the protests to the city’s YouTube channel and said “”People need to approach (these conversations) with an open mind” and “be willing to accept the hard truths and … change for the greater good,” and said he had pledged to adopt the goals of the #8CantWait campaign, a Campaign Zero project intended to provide short-term solutions to police brutality against people of color.

When Washougal community members marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on June 6, several people voiced alarm over seeing heavily armed people standing in front of and on top of a local Washougal gun shop during the march. Some even approached the Washougal City Council on June 8, and urged city leaders and Washougal police to speak out against what they said amounted to “establishing a rooftop sniper’s nest along a public parade route.”

A few weeks later, the Washougal City Council – with the lone exception of Councilwoman Alex Yost – passed a “pro cops” resolution overwhelmingly rejecting the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls to “defund the police,” or to reallocate local money away from police departments and into mental health and social services to help prevent the disproportionate rate of police-custody deaths of Black and indigenous community members and other people of color.

In mid-July, Washougal High’s sole Black teacher, Charlotte Lartey, described her experiences with racism in the Washougal community and said “racism is alive and well in Washougal, just like everywhere else,” telling the Post-Record she has heard white students make slave-owning jokes, “slave-whipping jokes, cotton-picker references.”

“I’ve heard them say the ‘N-word’ and that it’s OK for them to say it,” Lartey said. “My first year here was the hardest I’ve ever had as a teacher. I experienced some things that made me want to walk out of the classroom. I said, ‘Wow, I’m not sure how much longer I can do this.'”

Washougal School District leaders have said they remain committed to identifying disparities in the district and to “challenging and disrupting systems that are perpetuating institutional biases and oppressive practices … and developing culturally responsive school houses.”

Several small business owners joined the conversation about racism and social inequities this summer, starting conversations with message boards, fundraisers, virtual platforms and even an online book club discussion.

Not everyone was so supportive of making positive changes in the community, however. In July, a person or people destroyed public chalk art in front of the Camas Public Library, erasing the words “Black Lives Matter” and its acronym, “BLM” from the community made chalk art drawings.

In late August, things began to heat up with several armed rally goers attending a “Back the Blue” pro-police rally in downtown Camas and facing off for several hours with a group of mostly young Black Lives Matter counter protesters.

And, then, on Oct. 29, a 21-year-old Black Camas father, Kevin Peterson, Jr., was killed by Clark County Sheriff’s deputies in Vancouver after an alleged drug deal gone bad.

Deputies involved in the shooting had no body or vehicle cameras, but investigators have released a video compilation of the incident taken from nearby business security cameras.

Deputies told investigators they believed Peterson shot at them, but the investigation revealed no evidence Peterson had fired a gun found near his body.

The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is currently reviewing the case to determine if criminal charges will be filed against the deputies.

No. 2: CHS principal resigns after Kobe Bryant post

The second-biggest local story of 2020 was one that happened pre-COVID pandemic and one that went viral, attracting international media attention and resulting in the downfall of a school administrator.

The story began on Jan. 26, 2020, just a few hours after basketball legend Kobe Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six others, including the family of a former University of Oregon baseball player, died in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles.

Upon hearing the news, then-Camas High School Principal Liza Sejkora wrote on her personal Facebook page: “Not gonna lie. Seems to me that karma caught up with a rapist today,” in reference to a 2003 rape allegation against the basketball star that resulted in dropped criminal charges.

The post was not public, but members of the Camas community, including parents and students, saw the comment after one of Sejkora’s Facebook “friends” shared a screenshot of the post.

Several people voiced their complaints to the Camas School District, and more than 200 people signed an online petition calling for the principal to be fired.

Eventually, the post went viral, with international news outlets covering the story.

On Feb. 7, the district announced that Sejkora, who came to Camas from Arizona in 2017 to lead the high school, had resigned.

No. 1: The COVID-19 pandemic

Having upended, or at least drastically altered, most people’s lives in 2020, it’s no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic was the Post-Record’s top story last year. The 180 articles and opinion pieces we published in 2020 related to the pandemic began with near-daily breaking news of school and business closures, “stay home” orders, halted construction, postponed high school graduations and emergency declarations in March and April; moved into a season of virtual celebrations and a few reopenings in late spring and early summer, then shifted back to more closures and restrictions amid surging COVID-19 numbers in the fall and early winter.

Woven through this coverage were the stories of individuals, school district staff, small businesses, artists, nonprofits, church leaders and government officials thinking outside the box to help the Camas-Washougal make it through the pandemic:

The state’s mandatory mask requirement, which started June 26, meant more businesses, outdoor recreation sites, private schools and outdoor recreation facilities could reopen without the fear of rampant COVID-19 spread. Gov. Jay Inslee said then that the mask requirement would be “one of our best defenses” in the pandemic until vaccinations could help get the coronavirus under control. Several businesses reopened in June, outdoor dining flourished and outdoor events like the Camas Farmers Market reopened with new rules — including mandatory face coverings and physical distancing — in place.

Not everyone was content to follow state leaders’ guidance meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Washington state. Some local officials — including the majority of the Washougal City Council — pushed to reopen faster, and others, including a former Republican state legislator and a current Camas City Council member, bashed the state’s mask mandate.

By October, the local COVID-19 rates were climbing once again, derailing school districts’ plans to return students to the classroom. By November, the community rates of COVID-19 transmission were more nearly four times the number cited by local school officials in August as the target for reopening classrooms safely, and were high enough to prompt new restrictions on a statewide level.

Local leaders canceled holiday festivities like Camas’ annual Hometown Holidays event and Washougal’s Lighted Christmas Parade amid the new COVID-19 surge and Clark County officials said in late November that they were struggling to keep up with contact tracing as COVID-19 cases hit an all-time high.

The final month of 2020 saw an all-time high for local COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, with state leaders extending restrictions.

December also brought good news: the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived and states began an innoculation rollout that prioritizes the most vulnerable residents, including frontline health care workers, long-term care residents and members of indigenous tribes.